Please welcome guest author Kayleigh Last. Last is Reference/Adult Services Clerk at the Huntsville-Madison County [AL] Public Library. She curated the “What They Wore” show currently on view at the Cherokee County Museum in Centre, AL.
Every morning you get up and pick out an outfit for the day. Are you working? Then you might wear business casual or a uniform of some sort. Are you at home? You might just lounge around in your pajamas. Each outfit you choose depicts a different role that you’re performing in society, something that has been done by people for years. This is the main concept behind a new exhibit at the Cherokee County Museum in Centre, AL. The exhibit focuses on interpreting outfits from the 20th century and the various roles that the Cherokee County people who wore them performed.
“What They Wore” states the title in bold text, which can be seen from the foot of the museum’s stairs. Up on the railing of the loft sit 10 outfits worn by different people in the county. Mother, student, entertainer, life-saver, and hero are some of the roles performed by the people in the community.
Perhaps the most common role in Cherokee County held by women was the role of mother. In this rural county, women mostly worked at home during the 20th century helping their husbands, keeping things clean, sewing, taking care of their children, and saving money. All women had a sizeable range of skills that they could use to take care of the family.
Willie Gertrude Kinsey Brooks applied her sewing skill in 1919 when she handcrafted a dress for her newborn son. Stained brown with age, the white linen dress and matching cap once kept William Brooks, her son, warm. Looking at the garment, you can almost feel the love put into every stitch. As well as piecing the dress together and sewing it, Willie also made lace to line the collar and sleeves. As an added touch, she formed the word ‘baby’ out of the lace on the collar. At the bottom of the dress is a large tear that has been carefully stitched together.
When Pearl Daniel Watson graduated from high school in the early 1920s, she graduated in a dress made by her mother. Pearl may have picked out the color of the dress, mauve, or her mother may have had the fabric on hand. Short enough to show off her legs and including a drop waist, the dress is oddly fashionable for the area and the time. As an added flair, the dress includes a sash with a bow, which speaks for either Pearl’s tastes or her mother’s.
The perfect example of saving money but still being a good mother is the guano (fertilizer) sack dress made by Beatrice Kerr for her daughter Rebecca. Guano dresses are something that several older local people, like Mary Bishop, remember their mothers making when they were younger. The dress exhibits a form of cutwork known in the area as swatchwork. Beatrice Kerr entered the dress, made in the 1930s, in a Summerville, GA fair and won $1 for it. Although now spotted with age, the dress was well taken care of by Rebecca and her descendants until it came to the museum in the 1980s.
Outside of being sons and daughters, the most prominent role children perform is that of student. Cherokee County residents have long had an interest in making sure that their children got an education. Included in that education were extracurricular activities like band class. Mary Jordan Walden’s band uniform exemplifies the type of effort that went into these activities. Although we don’t know for sure, the uniform was most likely used in a Fourth of July celebration. It is made up of a satin blue jacket and jumper with white stars embroidered across the front of both pieces.
Bonnie Brasfield and her more famous father, Boob Brasfield, were both entertainers who hailed from Cherokee County. From the late 1920s to the early 1950s Bonnie Brasfield worked as a supper club performer in Nashville. On display is one of her dresses given to the museum when it opened. The dress is a late 1920s flapper dress made of layers of black fringe. As museum-goers walk up the stairs the fringe on the dress sways, giving visitors an idea of what it might have looked like when Bonnie shimmied her way across the stage.
The men in Cherokee County have a long history of serving as heroes and life-savers. In the right corner of the landing stands Jimmy Winkle’s rescue squad jacket which he wore on the squad in the 1960s and 1970s. The jacket is white, with all of Jimmy’s rappelling rescue, first aid, and other certification patches sewn on. Slightly faded spots of blood stand out on the bottom of the jacket. It is unknown whose blood it is, but there is no doubt that Jimmy got it on his jacket when he was working.
Cherokee County also has a long history of military service, as is shown by several of the outfits in the exhibit. Perhaps the most interesting, and exciting, is the World War I uniform.
The uniform, of which only the top portion is displayed, is complete from the pants to the wool lined leather jerkin. Leather jerkins were originally employed by the British at the beginning of the war in 1914-1915 because they allowed for freer movement and were still warm. When the United States entered the war, it adopted the jerkin for its own use. The owner of the uniform is unknown and could have been white or black — a troop of black soldiers from Cherokee County signed up in 1917.
Surprisingly, more men signed up in World War I than did in World War II, but several people in the county indeed enlisted in the latter. Joe Kingston served in the Army Air Corp during the war and stayed on for a while after. Several of his items have been donated to the museum, including his service jacket. The tan, double breasted jacket is lined with green wool and has Kingston’s name stamped on the back.
Not all heroes are those who do the fighting. On display is a Vietnam era Women’s Army Corp uniform. Although women were not able to serve in combat, they worked to ensure that necessary communications and supplies reached soldiers and their commanders. Class A’s, like the uniform displayed, were typically only worn on formal occasions like meeting with a high ranking general.
Rural counties like Cherokee were and are made up of small communities where people worked together to make life liveable, whether they were a mother sewing up tears in clothing she’d made or out representing the county in war. Each outfit tells us a little about the person who wore it, giving us glimpses into their personality with a well-pressed line or a playful sash. Here at the Cherokee County museum, we do our best to make the people in the past alive to those in the present, which is the true purpose behind “What They Wore.”
The Cherokee County Historical Museum is located in Centre, AL. “What They Wore” is currently open to members of the museum. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday 9-4 and charges a $3.00 fee to enter. All exhibits at the museum are done completely by volunteers and donations are appreciated. You can visit the museum’s Facebook page to learn more.